Revealing look at 600 years of British painting

By , Arts and television writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Three little girls beckon the visitor. Dressed in identical flame-colored gowns with gold tiaras in their fair hair, these young children are more than 300 years old - and just as endearing as ever.

We no longer know who they were, but the portrait by a follower of William Larkin is enough reason to see the entire exhibition at the Denver Art Museum, every room of which has some equally enticing work of history and art.

There is an art to collecting art. It takes aesthetic understanding and business savvy. And it takes something more: a desire to learn and go on learning, to find connections, and to see meaning in those connections - the same elements that make a great investment manager.

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"600 Years of British Painting" (through March 28) is a large, important exhibition covering more history of British painting than most Americans have ever seen.

Bill and Bernadette Berger, retired investment managers, collected these paintings and other works of art with an eye to the future - America's.

"We see our role as trustees of these things," says Bill.

"Some of these works are so old, we'd like to see them go on for another 500 years," adds Bernadette.

A good investment manager has immense curiosity, Bill continues. You have "an unquenchable thirst to know more. That's the beauty of the investment business - you have to have your antennae out. You get pulled this way and that - it's endless, the knowledge [available]. Collecting art is not that different from building a portfolio."

The Bergers have collected art with an unusual goal in mind: They want to give context for their paintings, offering the viewer a sense of British culture from the medieval period to the 19th century - and even a little of the 20th. So the paintings and objets d'art are arranged to compliment each other and even help explain each other.

"I think there is a new paradigm about collecting," says curator Timothy Standring. "The Bergers could have bought 25 or 50 of the most significant works of a period, but this is not a collection based on the canon."

The Bergers collected for an American public. Anglophiles both, they zeroed in on British art because they believe it is part American history, too. And further, the Bergers say that the British - from Elizabeth I's time to the modern era - have done much to advance US economic well being - from advocating free trade to inventing the electric motor.

A 'pop culture' approach

In the catalog they say, "Our intention has been to evoke some of the joy of looking at old family photographs in grandma's attic ... or to reveal skeletons in the closet ... or even to produce a 'you are there' sensation one can occasionally get from watching television." The Bergers want to give the viewer a sense of the whole culture of England.

Many foreign names are among the painters represented here such as Van Dyke, Holbein, and Moran - all included because they painted in England and influenced English painters.

The Bergers have made an effort to collect work that was representative of each era, not just the greatest works of art they could find. In fact, theirs is almost a "pop culture" approach.

Of course, pop culture isn't what it used to be. The high-art portraits of Tudor ladies and gentlemen, luscious landscapes, and formal military portraits are accompanied by exquisite stamps, silver chalices and teapots, and cunning miniature sailing ships in full rig.

The exhibition is not arranged chronologically, but thematically. The Tudor portraits hang near the few examples of medieval English art, so much of which was destroyed during the Reformation. Some landscapes and portraits are hung one above another on the walls, the way they would have been displayed in their own time.

And best of all, the rooms housing the exhibition have been painted in strong colors - some of them bright and bold.

"When appropriate, the works are displayed as they might have been in a British country estate," Mr. Standring says. "We were trying to be evocative without being slavishly imitative.... I was told by the security staff that this was the butt of jokes prior to putting the works on the walls because of the [bright] colors. But when we had it installed they said, 'We are humbled.' It is just so delightful to see. The color does not compete with the works of art."

Bernadette tells how she and Bill visited country homes in the summer. "These huge homes ... have many salons and libraries, kept the same way for hundreds of years, all dark and dingy. But you go to the [owners'] private quarters, and they have bright colors. And they take their marvelous art and rotate it around."

For short attention spans

The exhibition was installed by a team, Standring says, with the curator, educator, and designer all working together.

"Each of us had a different agenda. The educator said the public isn't going to care about the chronological order. Instead, we looked for the relationships among the works. What worked together, realism and plein-air painting, or contrasting the Thomas Moran with the Constable?

"Then we had to involve our publications department so that we had the right text.... [The] texts are a percolation among educator, curator, intern, editor."

Finding the relationships among works of art is an important trend in museum science these days, just as private collectors' involvement in the public good is coming back into style.

"We are trying to help museums do their job - to help the public get what art can do for them," Standring says.

"Not everyone needs a room full of Renaissance Madonnas. Not everyone is interested in British portraits, either. People's attention spans with the TV are click, click, click... You've got to catch 'em or you don't have 'em. That's what we've tried to do."

*M.S. Mason's e-mail address is masonm@csps.com

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